Amendment 53

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 6:52 pm on 21st October 2021.

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Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen:

Moved by Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen

53: Before Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—“CHAPTER A1CHEATING SERVICES PROVIDED FOR POST-16 STUDENTS AT ENGLISH INSTITUTIONSMeaning of “relevant service” and other key expressions (1) This section applies for the purposes of this Chapter.(2) “Relevant service” means a service of completing all or part of an assignment on behalf of a student where the assignment completed in that way could not reasonably be considered to have been completed personally by the student. (3) References to completing all or part of an assignment on behalf of a student include references to providing material to the student in connection with the assignment where—(a) the student could use the material in completing the assignment or part, and(b) the material—(i) is prepared in connection with the assignment, or(ii) has not been published generally.(4) For this purpose—(a) where, in connection with an assignment, a student seeks the provision of a relevant service, any material provided as a result is to be regarded as provided in connection with the assignment;(b) material is published generally if it—(i) is available generally without payment, or(ii) is included in a publication that contains other educational or training material and is available generally (such as a text book or study guide).(5) A person who provides, or arranges the provision of, a relevant service does so “in commercial circumstances” if—(a) the person is acting in the course of business, or(b) in the case of a person who provides a relevant service, its provision was arranged by another person acting in the course of business,whether the person’s own business or that of the person’s employer.(6) “Student” means—(a) a person who is undertaking a relevant course at a post-16 institution or sixth form in England, or(b) any other person over compulsory school age who has been entered to take an examination relating to a regulated qualification at a place in England.(7) A “relevant assignment”, in relation to a student, is an assignment (which may have been chosen by the student) which the student is required to complete personally—(a) as part of the relevant course which the student is undertaking, or(b) in order to obtain the qualification to which the course leads or for which the student has been entered.(8) In relation to an assignment that is a relevant assignment—(a) “personally” includes with any assistance permitted as part of the requirement (whether or not the assignment, if completed with that assistance, would otherwise be considered to be completed personally), and(b) that assistance is “permitted assistance”.(9) Section (Interpretation of Chapter) sets out the meanings of other terms used in this Chapter (including in this section).”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause defines key terms for the purposes of the new Chapter (Cheating services provided for post-16 students at English institutions).

Photo of Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I think we have all been in this Chamber for too long today, my Lords, and the brains are not working. But I do not do the scheduling; if I did, we probably would not still be here.

Group 14 is on essay mills and 16 to 19 academies. I will speak to Amendments 53 to 57, in the name of my noble friend Lady Barran. Contract cheating services have been a long-standing concern that your Lordships have rightly raised during the passage of the Bill. We have listened and I am pleased to bring these amendments to the House. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his unstinting efforts to clamp down on essay mills, where unscrupulous online operators provide assignments and other pieces of work for students in commercial circumstances.

Essay mills threaten to undermine the reputation of our education system, devalue the hard work of those who succeed on their own merit, prevent students from learning themselves and risk students entering the workforce without the knowledge, skills or competence to practise. We have worked with the higher education sector to clamp down on essay mills and to support students who might be targeted by these services. The sector has made great strides to help students understand the gravity of cheating and tackle the problem of cheating services. But, despite this activity, cheating services remain prevalent, with the pandemic leading to a further increase in the number of sites targeting their services at students in England. Amazingly, over 1,000 websites are now listed on uktopwriters.com, a comparison site of essay mill companies.

Our legislation will make it a criminal offence in England and Wales to provide, arrange or advertise cheating services in commercial circumstances to students taking a qualification at a sixth form or post-16 institution in England or enrolled at a higher education provider in England. It will send a clear message that contract cheating services—selling essays to students—are not legal, acting as a strong deterrent to those operating these reprehensible services.

Government Amendment 58 provides the Secretary of State for Education with an order-making power to enable the designation of 16 to 19 academies as having a religious character. It also provides for the Secretary of State to make regulations about the procedures relating to the designation. In addition, it sets out the freedoms and protections relating to religious education, collective worship and governance that the designation provides. I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Touhig—my noble friend—for raising this important issue in Committee. Both the noble Lord and stakeholder organisations such as the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales have been very helpful in their collaboration with officials. I am glad that we have come to this solution.

This amendment will ensure that, when existing sixth-form colleges designated with a religious character convert to become academies, they retain their religious character and associated freedoms and protections. It will also enable new and existing 16 to 19 academies to be designated with a religious character in the future. The Government are committed to supporting existing sixth-form colleges to be able to convert to academy status. I am pleased that a significant proportion of sixth-form colleges have already taken this step and are making a stronger contribution to strengthening the academies sector. This amendment means that the barriers which have prevented sixth-form colleges with a religious character from converting to become academies will be removed.

Government amendments 74 and 75 in my name are tactical and consequential amendments which would expand the Long Title of the Bill. They are a consequence of the government amendments relating to careers information and provider access, the banning of cheating services and the clause relating to allowing 16 to 19 academies to be designated as having a religious character.

We look forward to more sixth-form colleges becoming academies and strengthening the sector with their expertise. We also look forward to the creation of the new 16 to 19 academies with a religious character in the future. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Chair, Services Committee, Chair, Services Committee

My Lords, I take note of the point made by the Minister and will not detain the Chamber for long. I am sure that colleagues have been here much longer than I have today—I have been elsewhere. I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and pay tribute to her predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for her hard work on this Bill.

I will speak to government Amendment 58. My interest in the Bill arose because existing legislation prevents Catholic sixth-form colleges becoming 16 to 19 academies without losing their religious character. The colleges currently benefit from several protections set out in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. These relate to issues such as governance, collective worship, religious education and many others, and they are vital to maintaining the Catholic ethos of these colleges.

Any sixth-form college can of course become a 16 to 19 academy. However, the definition of “school” in the Education Act 1996, as amended by the Education Act 2011, excludes 16 to 19 academies. This means that 16 to 19 academies are currently ineligible for the protections and freedoms needed to remain Catholic.

Catholic dioceses across England that oversee colleges have developed strategies to bring the Catholic community together by creating families of schools within multi-academy trusts. These strategies enable schools to work in partnership and share resources. Many other sixth-form colleges around the country have become academies and are benefiting from the advantages of academy status. The 14—yes, there are just 14—Catholic sixth-form colleges across England would like to gain this benefit.

In Committee, I tabled a probing amendment to empower the Secretary of State to allow sixth-form college corporations to covert to academies without losing their current statutory protection—the Minister referred to this. I was encouraged by the response from the then Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and I warmly welcome the work of her successor, the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, who, with her excellent Bill team, has worked with the Catholic Education Service to find a way forward. Therefore, I am pleased that the Minister has tabled Amendment 58 to address this issue.

The amendment represents nearly a decade of engagement between the Department for Education and the Catholic Education Service on this matter. From my conversations with the CES, I know that the amendment has been positively received across the dioceses and the catholic sixth-form colleges. Indeed, Danny Pearson, principal of the Aquinas College in Stockport and chair of the Association of Catholic Sixth Form Colleges, said:

“Catholic sixth-form colleges are thrilled to see the government’s amendments will, at last, enable sixth-form colleges to become academies. As highly performing colleges with proven track records, this will allow us to grow and share our expertise across educational sectors for the benefit of local communities”.

He added:

“Many of our settings are in areas of high deprivation and this amendment will give colleges the stability and reach to ensure our young people get the life chances they deserve”.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, and the Government for tabling this amendment. I hope that the House will support it—I certainly will.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 7:00 pm, 21st October 2021

My Lords, I rise to speak on the issue of essay mills and contract cheating. I thank the Minister for tabling this amendment. There have been four Private Members’ Bills, three of them from me. The first time, I drew number 2, and then there was then a general election. I then drew number 50, which never got debated, and then I drew number 3—and we have the Private Member’s Bill up and running. I thank Chris Skidmore for putting one in the Commons as well.

More than 45 vice-chancellors and heads of UK higher education organisations wrote to the Secretary of State in 2018. The support and briefings of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education have been fantastic. I also pay tribute to two professors who started this whole thing off before I got involved: Professor Newton and Professor Draper at Swansea University.

When I looked at a particular independent college in Greenwich and saw the effects of contract cheating and essay mills, I realised that this was a very serious problem that we faced not just in further education but in higher education and, increasingly, in schools as well, although this amendment does not deal with that. Some 15% of our students admit to using contract cheating services. Oxbridge Essays claims that it has produced, for cheating, 70,000 essays. This is not just about students being drawn into this situation—many of them are worried about their well-being, their mental state et cetera—it is also about the academic credibility of our higher education system. If we allowed this cancer to grow, it will affect our universities and colleges.

I pay tribute to the Minister’s legal team, which has nailed this properly. I showed the amendment to a number of people, and, as you can imagine, I got some quite important replies. They said that the proposed strict liability offence—whereby there is no need to prove intent—is really important because it means that essay mills will not be able to rely on disclaimers, although they do have a due diligence defence. Getting strict liability offences through Parliament is extremely rare, but it is absolutely critical to this offence having any impact.

I would also like in passing to congratulate the Minister’s press department or PR department. The Minister very kindly emailed me her intended amendment and it said, “Strictly embargoed for four days”. I thought after the third day I would tip off the Times Higher Education Supplement or FE Weekly so I might get a little bit of credit, and they said “Oh, we got it four days ago”. The Government obviously have an eye on publicity as well.

I thank the Government for this amendment. Students, vice-chancellors and universities up and down the country will be very grateful. This is not the end of it, in the sense that we have to make sure that we look at Wales and Scotland, because that is important, and we will at some stage need to look at secondary education as well. When the Minister winds up, will she consider saying that if breaches occur, we will look at how we can tighten up the situation? I am sure that these essay mills, which form a £1 billion industry, will be looking at ways around this, and we need to see whether we can find ways to stop breaches happening in future. I hope the House does not mind, but I am going to depart.

Photo of Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Non-affiliated

My Lords, I, too, strongly welcome the amendments tabled in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, which seek to address the pernicious effects of essay mills. I must declare an interest as an adviser on skills to the Prime Minister and as an academic employee of King’s College London. That is why I want to take this opportunity to say how important and welcome these amendments are. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, who has been passionate and determined. Without his recognition that this is a major and serious issue which can be tackled, I am sure that these amendments would not have been tabled tonight.

There are a number of reasons why cheating has become a major problem for universities. It is partly to do with the pressure on people to get formal qualifications, the scale of universities and the temptation—you can do things you could not do before. There are two major sources of this. One is plagiarism, where we can fight software with software, and one is essay mills, where we cannot. I am quite sure that there will be a major improvement as a result of these measures: the firms will be unable to operate and students will take much more note of the risks attached to doing something illegal with these measures in place. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, has escaped, so I will send thanks in his direction. I say on behalf teaching academics all over the country that they will be extremely happy to see these amendments to the Bill, because it is almost impossible to know if somebody has used a commissioned essay.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the government amendments and all noble Lords who have spoken. I shall say a brief word on government Amendments 58 and 72, on religious academies. When my noble friend Lord Touhig raised this matter in Committee, my noble friend Lady Wilcox made clear our support for his endeavour, so it is good to see the Government responding positively by bringing forward on Report their own amendments to address the problem. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Touhig. Given how long this has seemingly been worked on, I hope that at least one academy, the Lord Touhig catholic academy, will be appearing any day now to mark his success. I am going to ask him to put his name to my amendments in future, in the hope it will have a similarly positive effect on the Minister on future subjects. I look forward to his support. These amendments are very welcome.

Turning to the remaining government amendments in this group on essay mills, as I made clear in Committee, we fully support the outlawing of cheating services. Having had to research this matter for one of the many Private Member’s Bills proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Storey—I had only just taken the brief on—I was shocked to find how comprehensive the available services are. I think I have regaled the House more than once with my story about commissioning imaginary essays on Augustine and the problem of evil and various other things, and being astonished to find the precision with which one could request services. There was even a “comparethemarket.com” for it. The whole thing is extraordinary.

I have a small number of questions, and I apologise, but given the amendments have been brought forward on Report, we have not had an opportunity to ask about them, so I hope the Minister will bear with me.

First, one of the conditions is that material provided to a student has to have been prepared in connection with the assignment, rather than published generally. One of the abuses of the current system has been essay mills selling the same essay to more than one student, as the same topic comes up again and again. If material had been prepared for one student and was then resold to 15 more, is that one offence or is each sale an offence?

Secondly, the policy note talks about committing offences in England and Wales. What does that mean? Does it mean that the website is hosted in England or Wales, that the company that owns it is registered there or that the owners and essay writers live there? Who commits the offence? Is it the person writing the essay, the one promoting the service, the staff, the owners or all of them?

I have two other quick questions. We are told that enforcement of the law will fall to the police and the CPS. Given the pressures on both, do the Government have a sense of how many prosecutions, if any, are likely in a typical year or will this rely on deterrence as a way forward?

Finally, the penalty on conviction is a fine. I sought clarification offline as to the likely scale of this and was told simply that this will be determined by the courts in accordance with Sentencing Council guidelines, with no cap on the powers of magistrates to issue fines. When I have had to deal with these things on Bills before, I have normally been given some kind of heads-up about the likely tariff or scale from the Government Benches, so can the Minister give us an idea? Are we talking about £50, £5,000, £50,000 or £5 million, or something relating to the profitability of the company? Can she give us some sort of heads-up or a rough benchmark?

I commend the Government for acting on both these points and look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank noble Lords for their comments. There is clear support across the House for these amendments and I am glad we have reached an agreeable solution on these important issues.

I will have to write on some of the questions raised, but I am able to answer a couple of them. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked whether the legislation will be extended UK-wide. We continue to engage and share our work with the devolved Administrations and would welcome a decision from them to legislate against essay mills in the future.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked if it is one offence or many. If sold 15 times, it is an offence not just once, but every time. I am swamped here; I think she also asked another question.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I will remind the Minister, but I am happy for her to write. My questions were about who commits the offence, what it means for it to be committed in England, the likely number of prosecutions and likely fines.

I ungraciously forgot to put on record my appreciation of the work of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on this over many years, so I take the opportunity to do so now while I am on my feet. I commend him for all his work.

Photo of Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

On how this will work in practice, an enforcement body is not specified on the face of the Bill and therefore any supporting investigations and prosecutions would fall to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service respectively. It is up to them to decide the offence and fine. I will need to write to the noble Baroness on her other questions.

Once again, I thank noble Lords, especially the noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Touhig, for their support on these issues. I hope that the House will support these amendments.

Amendment 53 agreed.